Controversy Who Really Invented the Telephone Part 2 Alexander Graham Bell

About the controversy over who really invented the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell's side of the story.




Bell's lifelong interest in communications was inspired by his father, a speech authority and teacher in Edinburgh, Scotland. The father's specialty was acoustics and the problems of teaching speech to the deaf. When the son came to America in 1871, he knew much about the human voice and ear, but hardly anything about wires and magnets. Neither a mechanical technician nor an electronics expert, he concentrated upon perfecting the sign-language technique developed by his father. As an offshoot of his success in the Boston area, however, he began to search for applications of electricity to sound production. It might almost be said that he approached his task with the altruistic instincts of a born "helper"--as if the whole world, in a sense, had defective hearing. Thus he made a somewhat sideways entry into the feverish field of electronic research. Rather than narrowing focus from a background of shop or laboratory skills, as so many of his fellow researchers did, he went about the job by expanding his particular specialty.

His harmonic telegraph, patented in 1875, carried a range of sounds by means of tuned reeds, and he believed that successful voice transmission could be achieved by adaptation and perfection of this instrument. What proved to be the most valuable patent ever issued--in February, 1876--was actually a concise description of Bell's "Improvement in Telegraphy," a six-page list of ways to transmit an undulating electric current by means of his harmonic telegraph. His claims that the transmitter could also be activated "by the human voice" and that "a similar sound to that uttered" could be received came almost as a postscript. Only the last of his seven drawings pictured his design for the telephone, a device "for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically." And not until three days after his patent was granted did the fragile device actually work. (That first telephone message--"Mr. Watson, come here. I want you."--was also the first emergency call, uttered when Bell spilled battery acid on his trousers. "One wonders what actually transpired." wrote J. Edward Hyde about the incident. "Our knowledge of human nature tells us that one does not calmly request the presence of an associate when battery acid is burning through the crotch of one's drawers.")

Three months later, Bell gave a successful public demonstration of the instrument in Philadelphia.

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